Neck pain can develop after a car accident, concussion or fall. Whiplash can be the result of the strain that will occur to the soft tissue and ligaments due to the injury.
What is whiplash?
Whiplash refers to the acceleration-deceleration forces on the neckcommon in a motor vehicle accident or with a sudden sporting impact. These forces cause a quick change of direction in neck movement. The lower neck and upper back move one direction, while the upper neck moves the opposite direction. These opposing forces can cause injuries to muscles, ligaments, nerves, and joints of the neck and back. Other times they can result in no injury.
So why can’t we control our neck and stop the whiplash movement? The whiplash injury takes place within 0.06-0.1 seconds. It takes 0.25 seconds for us to voluntary tighten our muscles, and 0.1 seconds for our postural reflexes to activate.
What does this mean? The whiplash injury happens too fast for our muscles to react. So we can’t control our neck movement, and it is unprotected. This can happen even in a low speed incident. Symptoms have been reported with collisions as slow as 8 km/hr.
What are the symptoms of whiplash?
Symptoms of whiplash can appear immediately, or up to 48 hours after the incident. During recovery, symptoms can change in intensity, this is normal. Symptoms will be different between individuals, but can include:
Pain in the neck, back, and/or arms
Decreased movement in neck and/or back
How long will whiplash last?
Most people will recover from a whiplash injury, but at different rates. Some people may recover in days or weeks, others may take months. A small percentage of people may develop long-term neck pain, which can last for several years. See the pie charts below for whiplash injury recovery times.
How can I help my recovery from whiplash?
Stay positive and keep active!
Studies have shown that people recover quicker from a whiplash injury when they are positive about their recovery. Doubting your ability to recover, and high levels of anxiety are associated with prolonged pain (Hendriks et al., 2005; Radanov, Stursenegger, & Di., 2005; Richter et al., 2004; Soderlund & Lindberg., 2003; Kyhlback, Thierfelder, & Soderlund., 2002). Also, catastrophising, or seeing your situation as worse than it is, is strongly associated with longer periods of disability (Soderlund et al., 2003; Nederhand, Ijzerman, Hermens, & Zilvold., 2004).
Quick recovery times are also associated with people who resume normal daily activities following their injury. Those who reduce or change their activity level following injury often have longer recovery times. For example, people who continue to work, even if it is in a reduced capacity, have a better recovery than those who take time off. So, don’t skip the things you enjoy like spending time with friends and family and taking part in social activities.
Avoid putting unnecessary strain on the neck with vigorous work or physical activities. But don’t be afraid to move your neck and back within a comfortable range. Be aware of your neck and back postures at work and at home; it is easy to slip into poor postural habits. Use the general tips below to check and correct your posture:
Grow tall from low back and pelvic area
Raise your pelvis out of a slumped position
Reposition your shoulder blades so they are drawn back and down
Lift the base of your skull off the top of your neck
Try and hold this position for 5-10 seconds as comfortable, try to do this 3-4 times per hour
How can physiotherapy help whiplash injuries?
Physiotherapy can be very helpful in recovering from a whiplash injury. It is beneficial to see a physiotherapist as soon as possible following the accident, so we can help you return to your normal activities as soon as possible.
What will physiotherapy for whiplash involve:
Individualised therapeutic exercises focusing on posture, strength, flexibility, and pain management in the neck, back, and shoulder blade region
Manual therapy to maintain or increase joint mobilisation and movement through the spine
Reassurance and encouragement
Once you have been given recommendations by your physiotherapist, it is important for you to take control of your situation. You are your own best resource in the recovery process, and managing yourself is a key component to eliminating the discomfort you are experiencing.
Jull, G., & Sterling, M. (2011). Whiplash injury recovery a self help guide. Retrieved from https://maic.qld.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Whiplash-Injury-Recovery-booklet-2015.pdf
Hendriks, E.J., Scholten-Peeters, G.G., van der Windt, D.A., Neeleman-van der Steen, C.W., Oostendorp, R.A., & Verhagen, A.P. (2005). Prognostic factors for poor recovery in acute whiplash patients.Pain, 114(3), 408-416.
Kyhlback, M., Thierfelder, T., & Soderlund, A. (2002). Prognostic factors in whiplash-associated disorders. International Journal of Rehabilitation Research, 25(3), 181-187.
Nederhand, M.J., Ijzerman, M.J., Hermens, H.J., Turk, D.C., & Zilvold, G. (2004). Predictive value of fear avoidance in developing chronic neck pain disability: consequences for clinical decision making. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 85(3), 496-501.
Radanov, B.P., Sturzenegger, M., & Di, S.G. (1995). Long-term outcome after whiplash injury. A 2- year follow-up considering features of injury mechanism and somatic, radiologic, and psychosocial findings. Medicine, 74(5), 281-297.
Richter, M., Ferrari, R., Otte, D., Kuensebeck, H.W., Blauth, M., & Krettek, C. (2004). Correlation of clinical findings, collision parameters, and psychological factors in the outcome of whiplash associated disorders. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, 75(5),758-764.
Soderlund, A. & Lindberg, P. (2003). Whiplash-associated disorders–predicting disability from a process-oriented perspective of coping. Clinical Rehabilitation, 17(1),101-107.
South Australian Centre for Trauma and Injury Recovery. (2008). Clinical guidelines for best practice management of acute and chronic whiplash-associated disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/publications/attachments/cp112.pdf